Fourteen months after a 19-year-old hotel worker accused basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of rape, the charges against him were suddenly dropped Wednesday, just days before his trial was to begin.
Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert said the prosecution could not proceed because the woman “has indicated her unwillingness to go forward.”
In a sign that a potential settlement of the woman’s civil action against Bryant could be in the works, the woman’s attorney handed out a statement from Bryant in which he offered an apology for their encounter in a mountain resort.
“I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year,” Bryant said in the three-paragraph statement. “Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure.”
Bryant said he now understood “how she sincerely feels she did not consent to this encounter” and said he had paid the woman no money. The 26-year-old Laker star, however, indicated that her civil lawsuit would proceed and said it would “be decided by and between the parties involved.”
The lurid case, which mixed celebrity, sex and race, attracted widespread attention because it involved one of the world’s most popular sports figures. It also shadowed the Lakers, professional basketball’s most-watched team, all last season. Had Bryant been convicted, the franchise would have been crippled. It also raised questions about the adequacy of laws designed to shield the sexual histories of rape victims from being introduced into evidence.
A clearly disappointed Hurlbert, whose case was plagued by inadvertent leaks, adverse rulings and weeks of speculation that the woman would refuse to cooperate, said: “Today justice is sadly interrupted. The casualty in this interruption has been a brave young woman who was grievously hurt.”
Resolution of the criminal case, which Hurlbert said would not be refiled, ended long months of uncertainty for Bryant, who could have faced life in prison if convicted of felony sexual assault.
Bryant left the Eagle County courthouse Wednesday when the first phase of jury selection concluded shortly after noon. He was at his home in Newport Beach when the case was dismissed later in the day.
Word of the pending dismissal circulated at midafternoon in Eagle, eliciting a flurry of no-comments and meetings attended by Hurlbert and his staff, the accuser’s civil attorneys and Bryant’s defense lawyers.
After 5 p.m., the accuser’s parents arrived at the Eagle County Justice Center and assistant prosecutor Dana Easter left the courtroom.
With a rueful look at her staff, Easter whispered: “We’re going to file a motion to dismiss.”
At 5:53 p.m., Judge Terry Ruckriegle entered the courtroom to preside over the unexpected final hearing in the case.
The courtroom was standing room only. Even the jury box was filled with reporters and onlookers from the prosecutor’s office. The accuser’s parents, who had faithfully attended proceedings, sat in the first row, red-eyed but not crying.
John Clune, one of the woman’s lawyers, said the dropping of charges was not tied to a financial settlement.
“We have not even entered into a single discussion about money. The difficulties the case has imposed on the young woman are unimaginable,” he said. “I could spend the next several hours explaining what she has gone through and not make a dent in it.”
Ruckriegle, saying he believed the impact on the alleged victim was “very real,” ended the 35-minute hearing by dismissing the case.
Three of the accuser’s former high school classmates, who sat outside the courthouse, said they believed Bryant’s version of the incident. Lindsay McKinney, who said she had lived with the accuser’s family for several months last year, said: “I hope he doesn’t end up giving her any money.”
The alleged victim’s parents did not speak to reporters Wednesday. The woman, who is now 20, stayed away and released no statement.
Harvard University criminal law expert Alan Dershowitz said Bryant’s statement could be a first step in negotiations with the woman.
“It sounds like this is a phased negotiated settlement, and this was the first phase,” Dershowitz said.
The sordid case began to unfold when the woman told Eagle County investigators that on June 30, 2003, Bryant raped her as he held her by her neck, despite protests and tears.
The woman told police that after the alleged attack, she promised Bryant she would not tell anyone what happened, cleaned up in the bathroom and left the hotel room.
Bryant was staying at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera before having knee surgery. He was interviewed by investigators the day after the alleged attack and voluntarily gave a DNA sample.
Bryant, who is married and has a young daughter, said the sex was consensual. In a tearful news conference at Staples Center on the day he was charged with felony sexual assault last July, Bryant said he was guilty of adultery, but he denied forcing the woman “to do anything against her will.”
Since the filing of charges, Eagle County spent at least $230,000 on the proceedings -- more than 10% of the district attorney’s entire budget.
Along the way, major mistakes were made, including the sending by e-mail of transcripts of closed hearings to seven news organizations, including The Times.
Ruckriegle blamed the errors on budget cuts that had taxed his staff. “We had no idea those mistakes would be under such a microscope and be disseminated instantly around the world,” the judge said.
As late as Wednesday, a legal filing was made public in which Bryant’s lawyers complained that the prosecution had withheld the fact that one of its possible expert witnesses had said that injuries sustained by Bryant’s accuser could have happened during consensual sex.
Hurlbert, a 36-year-old Republican who is up for election, defiantly insisted that he could have won. “With the victim, we truly felt we had a great case and that justice would prevail.”
Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor, was critical of Hurlbert and the woman who accused Bryant of rape.
“The bottom line is that Mark Hurlbert allowed his office to be used as leverage for an attempt to get money,” Silverman said. “What a massive waste of taxpayer money by the accuser.”
The Bryant case illustrated how volatile a rape prosecution can be, especially when race and celebrity mix.
Prospective jurors in the case were quizzed on their views of interracial sex. Bryant is black and his accuser is white.
Bryant’s fame guaranteed that every nuance of the case would be closely followed on television, in tabloids and on the Internet. The accuser’s name and photo, which under court rules should not have been released, have been widely publicized.
During the past NBA season, Bryant had shuttled from the Colorado court to the Staples Center court, aided by chartered jets and extraordinary focus.
Once the season started, the legal court held precedence over the basketball court. Bryant missed practices and other team events because of pretrial hearings.
When asked to explain how he was able to play so well on days when he was commuting between Colorado and Los Angeles, Bryant said playing took his mind off other things.
“Get out on the basketball floor,” he said. “It’s an escape.”
The Lakers issued a statement late Wednesday.
“We have fully supported Kobe in every way we could over the past 14 months, and never once did our support for him and his family waver,” the team said. “We will continue to support him as we put this behind us and move forward.”
Fans, meanwhile, greeted the news with relief.
Parking attendant Nick Melwani, 34, leaning back on a lawn chair in Old Pasadena, was listening to an Angels-Red Sox baseball game on a car radio when the announcer broke in with a special report.
“Now when he plays, he won’t be worried about going back to Colorado,” Melwani said. “It’s very good that they dropped the charges. Now he can concentrate on basketball.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Key moments in the Kobe Bryant case
June 30, 2003 -- Unbeknownst to the Lakers, Bryant flies to Eagle, Colo., to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in nearby Vail.
About 10 p.m., Bryant and three male associates check in at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards. Bryant registers under the alias Javier Rodriguez.
Shortly thereafter, a 19-year-old woman working as the front desk clerk accompanies Bryant on a tour of the hotel. Afterward, she escorts him to his room, where she says he rapes her.
July 1 -- Bryant undergoes knee surgery in the morning. About noon, Bryant’s accuser reports the alleged sexual assault to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department and is taken to Vail Valley Medical Center to undergo tests. Late at night, Eagle County sheriff’s investigators interview Bryant and collect evidence from his room.
July 2 -- About 2:30 p.m., Bryant is taken in a sheriff’s patrol car to provide DNA samples. At night, Bryant and associates board a flight back to Southern California.
July 3 -- Eagle County Sheriff Joseph Hoy obtains an arrest warrant from a district judge.
July 4 -- Bryant is told to return to Colorado and turn himself in. He arrives in Eagle County by private plane, accompanied by his wife, Vanessa. He is fingerprinted, interviewed and booked on suspicion of felony sexual assault and false imprisonment. After posting $25,000 bond, he returns home.
July 6 -- The Eagle County Sheriff’s Department announces Bryant’s arrest.
July 7 -- Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert says: ‘It’s possible [Bryant] will be charged with sexual assault. It’s possible he will be charged with something else. It’s possible he won’t be charged with anything.’
July 9 -- The accuser’s father confirms that his daughter, a former Eagle Valley High cheerleader and choir member, has made the allegations against Bryant.
July 12 -- Bryant tells The Times, ‘When everything comes clean, it will all be fine, you’ll see. But you guys know me, I shouldn’t have to say anything. You know I would never do something like that.’
July 18 -- Bryant is charged with felony sexual assault. If
convicted, he faces penalties of four years to life in prison, or probation of 20 years to life.
Hours later, Bryant, flanked by his wife and attorneys, holds a news conference at Staples Center. He admits committing adultery but says ‘I’m innocent’ of assault.
Aug. 6 -- Bryant appears for the first time in court. His preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 9.
Oct. 9 -- The preliminary hearing begins; it ends Oct. 15.
Oct. 20 -- Judge rules that Bryant must stand trial.
Nov. 13 -- Bryant makes first appearance before trial Judge Terry Ruckriegle. Bryant delays making a plea.
March 1-2 -- Defense attorneys say evidence shows Bryant’s accuser had sex with someone else between her encounter with Bryant and her medical examination the next day. Her attorney denies it.
March 24 -- The accuser, facing Bryant for the first time since June 30, 2003, testifies for three hours behind closed doors.
March 25 -- The woman’s attorneys ask that a trial date be set. In a letter, her mother says the family is worried because of death threats.
April 26-28 -- In closed sessions, several witnesses testify about the accuser’s sexual history and on a defense motion to have evidence from statements Bryant made to investigators the day after the alleged rape deemed inadmissible.
June 10 -- A motion by the defense to overturn Colorado’s rape-shield law is rejected.
June 24 -- A court clerk mistakenly e-mails transcripts of a closed-door hearing to seven news organizations, including The Times. In the transcripts, a DNA expert details evidence bolstering a defense contention that Bryant’s accuser had sex with someone else soon after the alleged rape.
July 23 -- Judge rules that the accuser’s sexual activity in a 72-hour span before her medical examination is admissible as evidence, as is her sexual history with two key witnesses.
Aug. 4 -- Accuser’s personal attorneys appear on national television, complaining that mistakenly released testimony from closed hearings caused ‘irreparable damage’ and had compromised the case.
Aug. 10 -- Accuser files civil suit against Bryant, seeking unspecified damages.
In the criminal case, prosecutors ask the judge to delay the trial indefinitely, saying the earlier inadvertent release of sealed testimony had tainted the jury pool.
Aug. 11 -- Prosecutors appeal judge’s July 23 ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that details of the woman’s sexual activity should not be admitted as evidence.
Aug. 13 -- Judge denies prosecution request to delay the trial. However, he rules in favor of prosecutors in limiting testimony about the accuser’s mental health and drug use.
Aug. 16 -- Colorado Supreme Court declines to consider prosecution’s appeal that details of the women’s sexual activity should not be admitted as evidence.
Friday -- Questioning of potential jury begins.
Wednesday -- Prosecutors say they will drop the criminal case. In a statement, Hurlbert says: ‘The victim has informed us ... that she does not want to proceed with this trial. For this reason, and this reason only, the case is being dismissed.’
Source: Times reports
Contributing to the coverage of the Kobe Bryant case were Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan, Tim Brown, Megan Garvey, Anna Gorman, Carla Hall, David Kelly, Claire Luna, David Pierson, Eric Slater and David Wharton.